The largest, most obvious piece of tabernacle furniture was the bronze altar. Every Israelite would have been acquainted with it, as it would have dominated the view any offerer would have had through the door of the tabernacle courtyard. The sight, sounds, and smells of this altar would be a constant reminder of the need for Israel’s continual sacrifices to enjoy God’s presence and favor. There was no approach to God apart from passing by this altar. It was the engine that drove tabernacle worship. The various sacrifices offered there were the fuel for this engine. Numbers 28-29 details the sacrifices offered over a year on a corporate basis – 1191 animals at minimum! There was never a time when the altar could be vacant. Blood shed at the altar satisfied God’s wrath against sin and enabled the priests to function more deeply in the tabernacle and more closely to God.
The bronze altar pictures to us the ultimate sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. The cross dominates our view, as we recognize it is there that sin has been judged and put away. Hebrews 9 teaches us that, by virtue of His once-for-all sacrifice, Christ has been welcomed back into heaven (the pattern for the tabernacle) and He has purified it (Heb 9:23), so Calvary is where we start and finish. As priests, we serve in the virtue and value of the sacrifice to end all blood sacrifices. It enables all aspects of our relationship with God and our service of worship to God in His presence. There is no aspect of our Christian life over which the cross does not cast its shadow.
Paul uses the imagery of this altar (Rom 12:1) as an appeal to those of us in the Christian family to offer our bodies and lives as a sacrifice to God in a spiritual act of worship. An appreciation of the blessings that have come our way as a result of Christ placing His all on the altar at Calvary should motivate us to follow Him in this way. Indeed, it is only in so doing that we can progress in our relationship with God. He has illustrated this for us in the tabernacle system. There is no way around the bronze altar if we are going to become intimate with God. So this is where it starts for us, just as it did for those Old Testament priests. Deeper appreciation of God, greater usefulness in His service, any note of worship, begins at the bronze altar. It is only after I have been at the altar that I am qualified to function acceptably before God in His holy presence. As failing priests, we will need to revisit this altar often, rededicating our bodies as living sacrifices, time and again. We can be confident that we are accepted because of the unfailing sacrifice of our Priest, Whose service at the bronze altar was such that there is no need for Him to ever revisit it: “… Christ, having been offered once …” (Heb 9:28, ESV).